Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Recovering the Past – Memorable Encounters

I’ve been on the trail of my brother’s lost past for a long time. Along the way I’ve encountered many memorable people who were part of his story. Brother Jeff Sharlet distinguished himself early, but died young. As the Vietnam War faded from public memory and with it the antiwar movement, Jeff’s accomplishments in the struggle were forgotten.

He was an ex-Vietnam GI who became a founding leader of GI opposition to the war. His pioneering underground paper, Vietnam GI, caught on quickly and was read around the world wherever American troops were stationed, most importantly in Vietnam.

In the early ‘70s, Jeff’s contribution was generously recognized in several articles and books, but the overall significance of GI protest in contributing to the end of the Vietnam War soon slipped into oblivion. Quite a number of books and memoirs subsequently published were primarily about the ‘civilian’ antiwar movement. Most of the authors had been activists who somehow forgot, or chose to ignore, the GIs who took on the war and ultimately made the difference.

Antiwar GI leaders languished along with Jeff in historical obscurity for over a quarter of a century until the dramatic appearance of the first full-length documentary on resistance in the ranks. Late spring 2005 I got a call telling me that the film, Sir! No Sir!, the suppressed story of the GI Movement to end the war in Vietnam, would be premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It was the director, David Zeiger, calling to say that Sir! No Sir! was dedicated to brother Jeff.

Around that time I had begun ‘searching’ for Jeff – to find and reconstruct the shards of his life and put his story between the covers of a book. It’s been a lengthy quest, but I’m now close enough that the time has come to note some of the memorable encounters I’ve had along the way.

‘Encounter’ is my word of choice meant to encompass those whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person along with many others I’ve met through Minerva’s gift to searchers, the Internet, and even a couple of historical figures of the times whose lives I ‘encountered’ only posthumously.

It was also about the time that I came upon an unusual social networking theory called ‘six degrees of separation’, the idea that everyone is just six or fewer steps away by way of introduction from any other person in the world.  I first stumbled on this curiosity in connection with my own life while seeking my brother’s story. Bear with me while I relate how it worked.

As a young man I knew Joan Baez who was to become the famous singer-songwriter. In the late ‘50s, I was living in Harvard Square across the river from Boston when she was beginning her career. She often performed at Club 47 on Mt Auburn Street, a coffee house a few blocks from Harvard run by friends of mine. I hung out at ‘47’ and got to know Joan casually.

At the time I was going to college and driving a cab, a Boston Checker. To take some liberty with Harry Chapin’s song, Joan soon “took off to find the footlights”, and me, I was “flying in my taxi.”*

Life moved on, and, like countless others, I listened to Joan’s music over the years, my brief encounter with America’s great chanteuse a pleasant but distant memory. Some 15 years later, after I’d begun my academic career and the Vietnam War had ended, I found myself invited to be on national public television (PBS). I went to New York, made my way to the studio, and was shown to the Green Room to await show time.

There I recognized Telford Taylor, the former US prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. We were to be on the show together that evening. I introduced myself, and we talked a bit. I wasn’t thinking, here I am talking to the man who brought the Nazi war criminals to justice or even about our upcoming on-air discussion.

Instead, a news item several years back sprang to mind. Professor Taylor had accompanied Joan Baez to Hanoi on a peace mission, and almost immediately on arrival they found themselves hunkering down in a bomb shelter. The US Air Force had just launched its so-called Christmas raids, the deadly carpet-bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese capital, December ’72.

Joan Baez and Telford Taylor enroute to Hanoi, 1972

That was, of course, a tenuous connection to my youthful encounter with Joan, but several decades farther on a closer link would emerge. In searching for brother Jeff, I was trying to locate GIs who served with him in Vietnam. I had names, one of which was Peyton Bryan, but no addresses.

Then another GI pal of Jeff’s gave me a crucial tip – after the war, Peyton had married Joan Baez’s older sister. Happily, a book on the Baez sisters had just been published, and there was Peyton in the Index. He and Pauline were living in  Carmel Highlands, a stone’s throw from Joan in Carmel-by-the-Sea on the California coast.

The six degrees theory came into play again while I was researching two especially prominent public figures relevant to the memoir. The two men were well-known in the history of the Vietnam War. Both were deceased, and though each was amply discussed in the war literature, I was able to gain further unusual insight into their public lives through similar personal interconnections.

One was Lucien Conein†, a legendary CIA agent in Vietnam; the other was Bernard Fall, the great chronicler of France’s defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese. Both of them were linked indirectly to Jeff’s experience in Vietnam.

Conein had been a daring OSS operative in Occupied France near the end of WWII and then had been redeployed to French Indochina to help drive the Japanese out. That was the beginning of his long relationship with Vietnam that lasted to the late ‘60s.

During 1963-64 when Jeff was there, Conein was in Saigon serving as covert US liaison to the South Vietnamese generals planning the coup against President Diem. Jeff, a Vietnamese linguist, was also part of our secret involvement in the coup, so I was on the lookout to learn as much as I could about Conein as the key player.

Sufficient information was available in published histories of the coup, but it was through two friends of mine who knew Conein personally that I gained the most insight – in effect, two degrees of separation. One was a former student who lived next door to Conein in an upscale Washington suburb until his death; the other was a college roommate who had served in Vietnam with the CIA.

My former roommate happened to witness the evening in Saigon a very drunk Conein raised so much hell in a hotel bar that the following day his superior sent him into Agency exile, shipping him out to one of the most remote small outposts in South Vietnam. Conein promptly dubbed the obscure place his ‘Phu Elba’ – he’d been assigned to Phu Bai, exactly where Jeff had been posted three years earlier.

Jeff’s posting at Phu Bai was also why I became interested in Bernard Fall. One of his noted books, Street without Joy, had been set on a stretch of highway not far from Jeff’s base in ‘53 where a French armor unit was wiped out in a well-laid ambush by Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh. Ironically, years later in ’67 during the American war, Bernard Fall, who was embedded with a Marine patrol, was killed by a mine explosion in the same locale.

Although not absolutely essential to my project, I wanted to know more about the distinguished historian, and, lo, two direct sources turned up. One was a colleague, godfather to my children, who, while taking courses on Southeast Asia at Cornell in the ‘50s, had been in a seminar taught by Bernard Fall. The other source was an ex-Vietnam Marine I came across who had known the historian well in Vietnam and remained a friend of his family since then.

Most of my encounters, however, have been with many good people I’ve been in touch with who have kept Jeff in memory. I’ve found these individuals all over the United States and as far afield as London, Paris, Munich, Athens, the Austrian Alps, Sydney, Thailand, and Chile.

Over time I’ve traveled far and wide to meet and directly interview those who remembered Jeff best – to Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, New York, Washington, Indianapolis, Bloomington, Woodstock, and elsewhere.

My interlocutors have been a diverse group. All without exception ended up in so-called ‘good guy’ professions – no oil lobbyists or ad execs penning  jingles. Aside from the military guys, the former civilian antiwar activists include academics, authors, artists, musicians, translators, international humanitarian workers, a few lawyers, a couple of film makers, several union activists, a rancher, and even a former professional football player.

Apropos the Vietnam War part of Jeff’s story, the military personnel were also a varied group. Most of the GIs were linguists, but there were also communications, transportation, and medical personnel as well as several infantrymen and a helicopter door gunner. Two were officers, both West Point graduates.

One of the Marines had been a member of Force Recon, a unit that infiltrated North Vietnam to carry out targeted assassinations, but perhaps the most unusual individual was Jeff’s fellow GI linguist who, upon completing his Vietnam tour, chose to remain in-country and for a time became a Buddhist monk.

Except for Jeff’s prep school classmates, most of the civilians were left activists, although of various persuasions – Trotskyists of sundry affiliations, including the Socialist Workers Party and the International Socialists; Progressive Labor; the Communist Party; Yippies; and a few members of the Workers World Party as well as the Lyndon LaRouche group.

A number of the people I encountered along the way had noteworthy pasts. They included a co-founder of Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW); some GI deserters; a former Assistant Attorney General of New York State; ‘soldiers’ of the SLA, the violent Symbionese Liberation Army; and several one-time prison inmates who had done time for draft resistance, burglary, or drugs.  

Some of the activists had played leading or significant supporting roles in momentous events of the ‘60s – notably the case of the Bloomington (IN) Three, the ‘64 Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and the Columbia University uprising of ’68.

One of Jeff’s friends, a Japanese-American, had been interned as an infant during WWII; another made a rare escape from a Mexican prison; and one man, a charismatic draft resistance leader, tragically took his own life. Quite a few have been lifelong supporters of the Cuban Revolution, some of whom had gone there to cut cane with the Venceremos Brigades beginning in ‘69.

A number of the individuals who have been of great help have led unusual or adventurous lives including Joe,1 combat photographer of the war’s underside; Gordon, a major who confronted the generals;2 and Jim, the former Yippie who took on the Pentagon.3

There’s also Tom, the career activist-organizer;4 Bill, who had been the ‘go-to’ guy in radical Chicago;5 and Bernella, the activist-musician.6 And no longer with us, there was Bernie, the maverick professor;7 Max, organizer of GI resistance in Europe;8 and Gary, the antiwar comet who briefly streaked across the ‘60s’ skies.9

My very first encounter on the memoir project from Jeff’s college days was with Karen Grote Ferb, who had known Jeff way back when they were undergrads at Indiana University (IU). She told me about Jeff’s ‘political’ life at IU, of which I’d been largely unaware. Within our family, he had rarely mentioned his radical activism – our parents would not have understood.

At IU, Karen, along with Jeff, was involved on campus with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Early on, SDS’s mission was urban and local, ERAP or the Economic Research and Development Project. Karen was sorry to see it shunted aside as the war in Vietnam heated up and national SDS refocused on antiwar protest, but threw herself into the fray with energy and enthusiasm.

When IU New Left activists went up to the state capital, Indianapolis, to join a demonstration protesting President Johnson’s weekend appearance, the Secret Service arranged with the city cops to preempt them. Karen was the first one arrested and in Monday’s paper became the poster girl for the incident. ††

Taking her degree in ’66, Karen went on to grad school. First day on campus she asked a bearded student where to find the left. He replied, “You just found it,” but her activism there was short-lived. Soon married, her husband, a fellow grad student, was drafted, and Karen, after a brief stint as a welfare caseworker in New York, became a trailing military wife.

Following Tom through the Army’s training network – Forts McClellan (AK), Benning (GA), and Hamilton (NY) – on the side Karen did her best to seed doubts about the war among young GIs destined for battle in Vietnam.

When Tom was released from the forces, the couple intended to resume their PhD study at Penn State. No problem for Tom, but by then they’d had their first child, and Karen was blocked by academic discrimination of the day – no mothers permitted in the graduate programs.

  Karen and her kids camping, New Hampshire, 1974

Tom and Karen went to work for Abt Associates, an international development outfit based in Cambridge MA working mostly under federal contract, whose mission was and still is to improve the quality of life and economic well-being of people around the world.  

Specializing in the evaluation of the Head Start and Magnet school programs that had been created in the mid-‘60s, among other federal programs,  Karen traveled extensively under Abt’s auspices – New York, Washington, San Francisco, and also Appalachia, south Florida, the Great Lakes region, and the Southeast as well as the Northwest.

Her most exotic destination was Alaska. From Anchorage she flew south in a Twin Otter, the pilots following the fjords along the Kenai Peninsula, described by Karen as “a place of stark and desolate beauty.” On the ground, she was driven by heavy truck over rough dirt roads to reach the evaluation sites.  

Later Karen, Tom, and their children became skilled ocean sailors, docking their boat in the Caribbean, and, by air, adventurous global travelers as well. Karen continues her lifelong work toward greater social inclusiveness as a civic leader in her local community, which most recently honored her as a ‘Woman of the Year’.

The family sailboat, Sazerac, British Virgin Islands, 1990

Since early in the new century when Karen first contacted me, I’ve been the fortunate beneficiary of her exceptional skills as researcher and editor in retracing Jeff’s short but interesting life, both for this blog and the forthcoming memoir.

My encounters on the trail of my brother’s life continued – most recently with Charlie Fisher, one of Jeff’s erstwhile comrades from the ‘60s. Actually, with Charlie it was a re-encounter since I had located him several years ago via the Internet. Subsequently, he and I met in San Francisco, but the announcement of his latest book has given me the chance to learn much more about his rich and adventurous life.

Chicago born, Charlie received his education from Kindergarten through a Master’s degree at the University of Chicago, reading the renowned ‘Great Books’ curriculum along the way. Off to Berkeley for a PhD in 1960, Charlie was part of the civil rights activism, the Free Speech Movement in ’64, and anti-Vietnam War protest then rife in the Bay Area.

Moving on, he enjoyed a long academic career as a sociologist at Brandeis University just outside of Boston teaching a broad array of courses across several disciplines. A polymath, Charlie taught the familiar Sociology curriculum – Social Movements, Community Organizing, and Sociology of Science – but also further afield, History of Science, Ethnography, and the Social Psychology of Consciousness.

Having joined the Brandeis faculty in the midst of the Vietnam War, Charlie plunged into antiwar activism in the Greater Boston area. Most notably, he became an activist in the Boston Draft Resistance Group (BDRG), the most effective organization of its kind in the country.

It was from Charlie I learned that Jeff had sent the masters for each issue of Vietnam GI to BDRG, which would then print up another 5,000 copies and extend distribution to military facilities throughout New England.†††

As Charlie relates in the author’s bio for his new book, the first of two major turning points in his life occurred in ’69 when he canoed from the Canadian Northwest on the Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean. During this epic adventure, Charlie became hooked on nature.

                             Charlie Fisher, Buddhist, naturalist, scholar

The other seminal moment was in ’77 when he made the decision to take up meditation. Charlie soon became a committed practitioner and serious scholar of Buddhism, incorporating the themes of the natural world and the practice of meditation into several of his courses. He began a lifelong study of the interconnection between the two.

Charlie’s commitment to Buddhism took him to remote corners of India as well as the American Southwest and other centers of meditation, while his engagement with nature involved a tree count in former British Honduras, now Belize; participation in a plant census; avid bird-watching; and summers spent in the coastal mountains of Northwest British Columbia.

Retiring from Brandeis, Charlie moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in ’97. No longer responsible for academic duties, he was able to devote full-time to the research and writing for two planned books on his education writ large. His first book, a study of the origins of human discontent, Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s Way through Darwin’s World appeared in 2007.

His latest book, the companion study Meditation in the Wild (2013), continues his intensive inquiry into the historical and philosophical origins of the relationship between human consciousness and the natural world. The noted author Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer in Residence, has called the book:
An astonishing fusion of interpretation and inspiration distilled over a lifetime of study of both natural history and the Buddhist dharma.**


Charlie is by no means at the end of his personal and learned quest, but l am pleased to have this chance to express my gratitude to him as well as to my colleague Karen Ferb.  Thanks also go to the many others referenced here and, though unmentioned due to space – to a legion of others.

Remarkable people one and all, I’m grateful for their memories in my journey to rediscover Jeff’s past and reconstruct his life in the GI antiwar movement of long ago.

**Wade Davis, Foreword, Meditation in the Wild (2013), 2.


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